Sex workers' rights
The term sex workers' rights encompasses a variety of aims being pursued globally by individuals and organizations that specifically involve the human and labor rights of sex workers and their clients.
The goals of these movements are diverse but generally aim to destigmatize sex work and ensure fair treatment before legal and cultural forces on a local and international level for all persons in the sex industry. As a result of the movement, so far fifty percent of countries have legal prostitution policies which include laws addressing the legalization of prostitution, brothel ownership, and pimping, eleven percent have policies that are classified as limited legality, and thirty-nine percent have policies that have classified everything as completely illegal.
- 1 Discrimination and stigmatization
- 2 Pornography debates
- 3 Sex wars
- 4 Legality of prostitution
- 5 Employment
- 6 Dangers of sex work
- 7 Celebratory days
- 8 Global sex workers' rights movements
- 9 Role of international organizations
- 10 Advocacy
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
Discrimination and stigmatization
In most countries, even those where sex work is legal, sex workers of all kinds feel that they are stigmatized and marginalized, and that this prevents them from seeking legal redress for discrimination (for e.g., racial discrimination by a strip club owner, dismissal from a teaching position because of involvement in the sex industry), non-payment by a client, assault or rape. Activists also believe that clients of sex workers may also be stigmatized and marginalized, in some cases even more so than sex workers themselves. For instance, in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, it is illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them (the client commits a crime, but not the prostitute).
During the 1970s and 1980s the main topic of feminist discourse was pornography, sex work, and human trafficking in regards to women’s sexuality. This led to the birth of mobilizing for sex workers’ rights in America. Carol Leigh is credited for coining the term "sex work" in the early 1980s and it was later popularized by a book published in 1989 called Sex Work. Around this time feminist debates centered upon the role that pornography played in women’s rights. The feminists involved in these debates had opposite views on ways to eliminate sexual violence against women in which feminists were generally either classified as liberal feminists or radical feminists. A third group of feminists is called pro-sex or sex positive feminism and this view is said to be the true defense of pornography.
The argument of the radical side rests upon the premise that pornography depicts women as subordinates and perpetrates violence against women. Some of the main anti-porn feminists involved in the debates included Page Mellish, Andrea Dworkin, and Catherine MacKinnon. Andrea Dworkin believes that the oppression of women occurs through sexual subordination and that in order for gender equality to exist, subordination must be eliminated. Thus, she states that pornography was an antagonist to equality. Similarly, Catherine MacKinnon states that pornography is an act of sexual violence. On the grounds that pornography violated women’s civil rights, she and Dworkin proposed a law named the ‘Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance’ that allowed women to seek reparations for damages done by pornography through civil courts. Likewise, Page Mellish, the founder of Feminists Fighting Pornography (FFP), believed that issues facing feminists were rooted in pornography. Mellish allied with conservatives in 1992 to fight for the passing of the ‘Pornography Victims’ Compensation Act’ which was modeled after Dworkin and MacKinnon’s ordinance.
Contrarily, the liberal side, believe that women have rights over what they do with their body so they are free to participate in pornography if they chose to. The main thing that these feminists fight for is anti-censorship regardless of whether they agree with pornography or not. On this side of the debate are feminists such as Gayle Rubin and Lynn Chancer. Rubin argues that anti-pornography laws could negatively harm sexual minorities such as gays/lesbians, sex workers, and feminists because they would create new problems and modes of abuse resulting from the anti-pornography side's use of a limited amount of porn that demonstrates the most extreme cases of violence such as sadomasochism. Likewise, Chancer argues that it is possible for such imagery to be able to circulate consensually and lawfully while genuine feelings of pleasure are being experienced without women feeling subordinated. She also states that some of these feminists believe that pornography is negatively affecting women by leading to violence against women when in actuality it is not. Thus, she concludes that radical feminists are looking at pornography as a quick fix to a much larger societal problem.
Sex positive feminist
Sex positive feminists believe that no form of sexual expression should be vilified except that which is not consensual. One of the main advocates of this feminist perspective is Carol Queen. She argues that radical feminists probably generalize too widely as far as women are concerned and do not take into consideration more complicated circumstances such as sadomasochism and prostitution. Elisa Glick also states that configurations of power within relationships do not prevent women from exercising it and that they can be used to enable women to exercise it.
These pornography debates gave leeway to the debates referred to by feminist scholars as the Sex Wars. These debates began in the 1980s and centered upon ways that women were depicted in heterosexual sexual relations. The main premise of the anti-pornography movement rests upon the argument that pornography is degrading and violent towards women. These feminists also believe that pornography encourages men to behave violently towards women. However, liberal feminists argued that this argument does not take into account the pleasure that women can experience and states that these arguments could backfire against women and leave them actually more subordinated. Thus, the debates began to become centralized on the role of dominance within heterosexual relationships and how this dominance is transferred to other areas of women’s lives. These theories of male sexuality and female objectification and sexuality are controversial because they framed more modern debates about human trafficking in which coerced workers need to be distinguished from voluntary workers.
A more contemporary debate that has materialized as a result of the movement focuses more on human trafficking. Current debates center on whether the best way to protect women would be through abolition, criminalization, decriminalization, or legalization.
Current policies aimed at reducing human trafficking are referred to as "rescue missions" by sex worker advocates because they state that laws that call for the abolition and criminalization of prostitution tend to result in large-scale raids that do not distinguish between coerced sex workers and those who voluntarily enter sex work. Furthermore, liberal feminists such as Ronald Weitzer and Gayle Rubin argue that by saying that sex work is inherently violent, a “moral panic” has been created that influences political discourse. Therefore, liberal feminists believe that this has led to the construction of a trafficking victim that may actually be a woman migrating for work. These feminists argue that this can backfire because it does not protect those women who voluntarily enter into sex work.
On the other hand, opponents against the movement such as Melissa Farley and Janice Raymond argue that sex work should be criminalized and abolished because the legalization of it can increase human trafficking. The New UN Trafficking Protocol by Raymond argues that countries with legalization and decriminalization are where a lot of victims are trafficked to under the guise of migrants so they still do not have protection. Raymond also argues that it is impossible to separate the exploitation done to local prostitutes from the exploitation done to trafficked prostitutes because the experiences are so similar. Thus, to end sex slavery, the report declares that everyone involved in sex work would need to be criminalized so that it could be abolished. Similarly, Farley has argued that sex work is a profession that a woman only voluntarily enters if they do not have any other choice. Thus, she concludes that women still are not able to feel empowered by the work.
Legality of prostitution
There are two main categories in which most activists fall regarding the formation of policies that protect sex workers from violence: abolitionism and/or criminalization, and legalization and/or decriminalization.
Abolitionism and/or criminalization
Early reformers identified the key problem with prostitution as male lust that lured innocent women into a depraved life as prostitutes. Thus, abolitionist proponents believe that prostitution is an exploitative system that is harmful to the women involved. Therefore, these activists believe that in order to prevent violence against women, customers, pimps and panderers should be punished so that the entire institution can be demolished. Because this policy approach is built upon the idea that women are helpless victims, opponents of this view believe that it is paternalistic and not empowering to women.
A study by Melissa Farley, a well-known criminalization proponent, and colleagues, suggests that violence is an intrinsic part of prostitution in which the chances of experiencing violence increases along with the number of years involved in prostitution. This study also concludes that prostitution tends to be multi-traumatic in all forms. Farley and colleagues also used the Netherlands as an example of a country to support the idea that legalized prostitution can still inflict harm on those involved. They stated that over 90% of the sex workers tend to show symptoms of PTSD. Therefore, these proponents advocate for abolitionism and criminalization as a method of protecting sex workers.
Support for criminalization
Many proponents of abolitionism and/or criminalization of prostitution commonly use ten reasons based on studies done on the effects of prostitution in countries where it is legalized and/or decriminalized.
- Prostitution is a gift to pimps, traffickers, and the sex industry.
- Prostitution promotes sex trafficking.
- Prostitution expands the sex industry instead of controlling it.
- Prostitution increases clandestine, illegal, and street prostitution because many women don’t participate in health checks or registration and don’t want to be controlled by businessmen.
- Prostitution increases child prostitution.
- Prostitution doesn't protect women in prostitution.
- Prostitution makes it socially acceptable for men to buy sex and women are viewed as sexual commodities that men are encouraged to partake in.
- Prostitution does not promote women’s health because the condom-use policy is not strictly enforced.
- Prostitution does not enhance women’s choice.
- Prostitutes do not want the sex industry legalized or decriminalized.
Legalization and/or decriminalization
Legalization and/or decriminalization proponents, on the other hand, believe that the selling and buying of sex exchange will continue no matter what. Therefore, the only way to effectively prevent violence is to acknowledge this and for government to build policies and laws that deal with the issue through regulation of the business. Legalization/Decriminalization proponents believe that a system that prohibits prostitution creates an oppressive environment for prostitutes. Proponents of this view also recommend that policies are built that places restrictions on trafficking and exploitation of sex workers.
Support for decriminalization
The legalization of sex work often entails additional restrictions and requirements placed on sex workers as well as registering with official government offices. Additionally, many activists favor decriminalization over legalization. Decriminalization involves a focus on laws which protect the rights of sex workers, such as those against coercion into or to stay in sex work, while all consensual sexual contact between adult sex workers and adult clients would not be criminalized.
Roanld Weitzer, a well-known proponent for the legalization/decriminalization of prostitution, stated that the use of nonscientific evidence about prostitution has contributed to a "moral panic" because opponents commonly use the argument that prostitution is inherently violent and unable to be regulated. However, he also claims that other governments have been able to reject this notion and find ways to regulate it and uses Nevada as an example. .
Below are some of the main premises that the pro-legalization and pro-decriminalization of prostitution movement rests upon.
- Prostitution is a transaction where no one is harmed and the persons involved are consenting adults.
- Prostitution is a free choice.
- Sex work is no more moral or immoral than other jobs.
- Sex trafficking and coercion into the industry can be effectively reduced if sex work is legalized and/or decriminalized.
- Decriminalization and/or legalization can protect sex workers from violence most effectively.
- The spread of diseases can be hindered through the legalization and/or decriminalization of prostitution.
- The rates of rape could decrease if prostitution were legalized and/or decriminalized.
- Sex work could become a legal business and human rights and worker's rights could be enforced by effective regulation.
- Prostitution is a career option in which the free market is being taken advantage of and women’s claims over their own bodies.
- The criminalization of sex workers only exacerbates problems that they are already facing. Therefore, the decriminalization and/or legalization can be a starting point to addressing these issues.
Depending on regional law, sex workers' activities may be regulated, controlled, tolerated, or prohibited.
For example, prostitution is illegal in many countries, but it is fully legalized in several jurisdictions, including Netherlands, Germany, some Australian states, and several counties in the state of Nevada.
Strip club employment issues
In the UK, a study was conducted which inquired about dancers’ experiences to get a better understanding to determine whether or not it could be costly for women to work some nights. It stated that often when the club offered promotions with gimmicks, dancers would be required to work with no pay. Furthermore, dancers may be required to promote events without pay as part of the house rules. If they try to complain, the club owners would threaten to let them go. Thus, the study suggests that they are at risk of being treated as disposable and have no way to organize for better working conditions. Moreover, the study states that dancers are required to pay their “house moms” and the DJs. Finally, sometimes dancers are incentivized for buying drinks for their customers and other dancers which could prevent them from making as much profit as they would like.
The fees of dancers’ house fees can be large and sometimes they are not waived or lowered when business is slow. Also, clubs may continue to hire women even during bad economic downturns. Therefore, dancers feel that their earning potential is lowered.
In addition to house fees and entry fees, many dancers are not paid for their stage shows because they are considered a part of self-advertisement. This is also considered another rule that comes along with their job description. In the UK, the club generally takes thirty percent commission.
Fines and tips
The final way clubs make money is through fines and tips. This study found that there could be a fine for something such as chewing gum or having gum in a bag that ranges from twenty to thirty pounds. The most common fines were chewing gum, using cellular phones on the floor, and tardiness. It goes on to say that some dancers may have to pay to take time off. Dancers also tip people that work in the club such as waitresses and doormen in order to get them to direct customers to them. Other reasons that motivate dancers to tip include tipping security so that the dancers will not be fined and tipping DJs to be called during good song and opportune times.
One study by Barbara Brents and Kathryn Hausbeck states that the legalization of prostitution in Nevada's brothels allows the business and workers to be better regulated and protected. Ronald Weitzer supports this idea by stating that this is because there are many safety measures in place to ensure the safety of the workers. Brents and Hausbeck's case study in Nevada's brothels entailed examples of how they believe protection mechanisms were built throughout the process. They started by saying that the negotiation process for sex workers in Nevada requires the use of an intercom during the process so that workers will not betray the business owners and so that owners can know if the customers are putting the workers at risk. After the price is negotiated, the money is paid and taken out of the room by the sex worker. At that point, the sex workers have the opportunity to let security guards know if there is anything unsafe or uncomfortable about the situation so that security can be particularly alert. Another protection mechanism requires security to come for the workers after the allotted period of time and demand that the customers either leave or renegotiate the price so that sex workers are not coerced or forced into providing additional services without a fee. Finally, the study concludes that sex workers are offered protection from one another in brothels because of strictly enforced rules and the relationships that brothels have been able to build with local law enforcement officials. According to some legalization supporters, this protection creates an environment that can be empowering for women to work in. Additionally, proponents argue that workers also have to comply with health regulations and engage in preventative practices. They state that this compliance leads to a system that becomes mutually advantageous for brothels and sex workers because a perception of safety by workers is profitable for the brothel. In brothels in Nevada, sex workers are required to be tested and be verified as healthy. Afterwards, they are required to be checked on a weekly basis and/or monthly basis for certain STIs. Condom usage is also required and the brothels make sure to advertise this so that the customers know beforehand. Finally, sex workers are able to examine the customers before any services are given to make sure that there are no signs of visible STIs. If there are any suspicions, the worker is allowed to refund the customer and refuse service.
A study by Janice Raymond states that there can be many detrimental consequences to legalizing and decriminalizing prostitution. One consequence mentioned was that prostitution can been seen as a suitable and normal option for the poor. Therefore, poor women can be easily exploited when there is a lack of sexual services which does not lead to their empowerment. Melissa Farley supported this idea with an analysis stating that most women do not rationally decide to enter prostitution rather the decision is made as a survival choice and that there are certain circumstances can drive women into the field of prostitution, leaving them with a choice that is more along the lines of voluntary slavery. Thus, it is merely used as a surviving strategy.
Furthermore, Raymond states that businesses in the sex industry are able to offer services to any men which has led to more gender inequality because women have to accept that prostitution is a new norm. She supported this by saying that even disabled men are able to receive sexual services and their caregivers (mostly women) are required to take them to these establishments and assist them in engaging in sexual acts. Another consequence Raymond mentioned was that child prostitution has increased in the Netherlands. She suggests this is because the Netherlands has created a prostitution-promoting environment through laws concerning children that make it easier for abusers to use children without penalty. She also adds that the distinction between voluntary and forced prostitution could be detrimental because it can be argued that the thought of someone being forced into prostitution can be exciting for some men because it may be a part of clients' fantasies. Finally, another study states that the legalization and/or decriminalization can be detrimental because studies that surveyed sex workers where it is legally concluded, violence is accepted as part of the job with the universal experience of molestation and abuse.
Organizations in Australia such as Scarlet Alliance and the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria ally for the full decriminalization of sex work. It has been credited with better sex worker occupational health and safety, high condom use, and the lowest STI and HIV rates around the world. Furthermore, the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria was the first sex workers’ organization in the world to receive government funding. They are currently fighting against tight regulations pertaining to the sex work industry. Scarlet Alliance is also involved in providing HIV/AIDS outreach and education to sex workers.
SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task) is an advocacy organization located in Cape Town, South Africa with the goal of providing education and public health services to sex workers. They also lobby for the decriminalization of sex work and have recently begun a research program in 2003 with the goal of influencing future policy pertaining to sex workers.
TAMPEP is organization that was founded in 1993. Its aims are to help migrant sex workers in more than twenty-five European nations especially focusing on the public health needs of those workers in Central and Eastern Europe. It also examines the legislative framework that sex work takes place within in order to suggest better policies that would protect sex workers. Some of the outreach methods used to assist sex workers include outreach and education and cultural and peer mediators. Some of the results of research carried out include identification of migrant sex workers and barriers to protection of their rights and the creation of networks between sex workers, organizations, and medical care.
The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) was formed in 1994 to advance the rights of sex workers in Asia. It provides support to the sex workers in Asia particularly relating to issues of human rights advocacy and HIV support services.
The Network of Sex Workers in Latin America and the Caribbean (RedTraSex) was organized in 1997 in fifteen countries to fight for the rights of sex workers. So far, the organization has influenced policy in certain countries and has interacted with the president Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Luis Ignacio Lula de Silva in Brazil. One achievement made in Latin America has been the sex worker identification card that has been issued in Bolivia. Furthermore, more sex workers have been included in HIV and health services education.
Dangers of sex work
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
In countries where sex work is either criminalized, illegal, or both, sex workers face many potential threats of violence. One major threat of violence is the risk that they may contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) due to their labor and context-dependent barriers that can be either structural (government) or individual (fear) in nature. Since violence in the streets can be commonplace, this further increases their susceptibility to contracting a disease due to factors such as coercion or rape. Therefore, they lack the ability to demand that a condom is used or to refuse service. In addition, the World Health Organization states that sex workers have been known to be refused health services when seeking out disease prevention and treatment because of their job. Furthermore, sex workers are also afraid to seek out health services for problems because of structural barriers that prevent them from knowing about and utilizing services that could teach them better prevention methods. A particular example of the disease threats sex workers are faced with can be demonstrated via a study conducted in Cambodia where the rate of HIV has increased over the years. This report studied the prevalence of HIV among a group of indirect sex workers of Cambodia called beer promotion girls, women employed by distributors to promote and sell beers. The study found that they have the highest rate of HIV because they often sell sex as a means of supplementing their salary. This report also found that among indirect sex workers the condom usage rate is lower because they may be getting paid more for sex without condoms. It concluded by explaining how disease prevention campaigns often target direct sex workers such as those who work in a brothel and neglect the women in other areas of sex work who are also at risk of contracting STIs. Thus, advocates of the legalization/decriminalization of prostitution believe policies need to be made that targets anyone who may be in vulnerable positions such as theirs.
Trans women who are sex workers are at particular risk for HIV. The seroprevalence of HIV among trans women sex workers internationally has been estimated at 27.3%. Sex work is prevalent amongst transgender people, particularly young trans women.
Likewise, the World Health Organization report says that criminalization creates an environment where women are less likely to report crimes against them and accept the possibility of violence such as rape, murder, beatings, and kidnapping as a part of the job description. The report also states that sex workers are even at risk of being harassed, humiliated, and coerced into sex with local law enforcement. Although these are some of the common threats that both decriminalizing/legalizing and criminalizing/decriminalizing prostitution hope to address and reduce, another study concludes that the rates of victimization of prostitutes are not nearly as high as some studies claim.
March 3rd: International Sex Workers’ Rights Day
This day began when over 25,000 sex workers gathered in India for a festival organized by a Calcutta-based group called Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Unstoppable Women's Synthesis Committee) despite protests pressuring the government to revoke the permit for the parade in 2001.
June 2nd: International Sex Workers' Day
This day began June 2, 1975 in Lyon, France when a group of sex workers met in a church to express their anger about exploitative living conditions and the criminalization they face because of their work.
August 3rd: China Sex Worker Day
In 2009 the Chinese Grassroots Women’s Rights Center designated this day to fight the discrimination that faces Chinese sex workers.
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
In 2003, Dr. Anne Sprinkle founded the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA and held a vigil on this day for the victims of the Green River Killer and this day has been commemorated ever since to remember the victims of violent crimes and fight discrimination of crimes related to sex work.
Global sex workers' rights movements
Although research about the movement has been conducted mainly in North America and Western European countries, there has been mobilization around the world of sex workers in order to influence policies that would recognize the work as a legitimate profession and offer protection to the workers.
Role of international organizations
Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP)
NSWP is an organization founded in 1990 by sex workers from different nations. They are largely responsible for the shift of language in which workers are referred to as sex workers instead of prostitutes. Some of the advocacy work they participate in involve HIV/AIDS and fighting against the discrimination of sex workers. They are also involved with research about the profession and have created a publication called Research for Sex Work which was created for activists, health workers, NGOs, etc.
World Health Organization (WHO)
The World Health Organization has released a report focusing on the violence that sex workers face and their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. It included currently used intervention strategies as well as policy recommendations from the WHO Sex Work Toolkit. Furthermore, another report addressing HIV prevention in middle to low-income countries was released with policy guidelines based off research conducted by the organization which recommended that sex work be decriminalized and called for the elimination of unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.
United Nations (UN)
UNAIDS has written a report with policy suggestions in Asia and the Pacific that includes case studies to support ways to improve access to health services in Asia and the Pacific. It also addresses some of the factors that hinder sex workers from accessing health services. Furthermore, the UN released a development report titled Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific discussing the policies surrounding sex work in Asian and Pacific countries, the effects these laws have on sex workers, and policy recommendations. Some of the policy recommendations for governments included decriminalizing sex work and activities associated with it, providing sex workers with work related protections, and supporting sex workers' access to health services.
They have also released a 2011-2015 strategy report titled Getting to Zero that aims for the vision of “Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.” The report states that its goals include reducing HIV transmission by half, getting universal access to antiretroviral therapy for those living with HIV, and reducing the number of countries with punitive laws around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use, or homosexual activity by half all by 2015.
International Labor Organization (ILO)
Similarly, the ILO has released reports suggesting policies that could be put into place that would address the vulnerabilities that sex workers encounter due to the nature of their jobs. Most of the reports deal with ways to decrease the number of workers that contract HIV/AIDS so that the disease is not spread to the general population. It also supports the "Getting to Zero" mission and has found different ways to implement the primary policy initiative,Recommendation 200. This recommendation states that "Measures be taken in and through the workplace to facilitate access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services for workers, their families and dependents." The publication discusses some of the different ways that they have implemented programs that target both sex workers and their clients in different countries worldwide.
Another report released by the ILO examines sex work in Cambodia by evaluating direct and indirect sex work in various settings and case studies with sex workers in order to conclude with policy suggestions that can be used to decrease the rate of HIV/AIDS transmission among sex workers, their clients, and to the general population also. Some of the key recommendations from this report suggest addressing violence and abuse that is work-related, expanding unions to include indirect sex workers, bringing a workplace perspective to prevention care and health strategies, and coordinating health and safety interventions within the workplace. Under each category more specific initiatives that can be implemented were also included.
Sex worker activists and advocates argue that sex workers should have the same basic human and labour rights as other working people. Catherine Healy, a sex workers' rights activist from New Zealand, has co-edited a book Taking the Crime Out of Sex Work which argues decriminalization has resulted in better working condition for prostitutes in New Zealand.
For example, the Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour calls for the legalization of sex work, the elimination of state regulations that are more repressive than those imposed on other workers and businesses, the right to recognition and protection under labour and employment laws, the right to form and join professional associations or unions, and the right to legally cross borders to work.
Also, the legalization of sex work would allow it to be carried out in better organized circumstances (e.g., legal brothels), where standard industry practices (e.g., practicing condom use and regular health checkups for sex workers) could reduce the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
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